Why They Run for Local Office

(from Maine Townsman, December 2007)
By Douglas Rooks

Sometimes newly elected municipal officials come into office with a certain amount of fanfare. The new mayors of Biddeford and Belfast, for instance, both earned front-page notice in the state’s largest newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, within weeks of their election on Nov. 6.

Joanne Twomey made a name for herself years ago as a determined opponent of the trash incinerator known as MERC (Maine Energy Recovery Co.) that dominates the downtown skyline. She later served six years on the city council and eight years in the House of Representatives. Term-limited there, she made an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2006 but came back this year to win the mayor’s race over two sitting council members. Twomey told the newspaper she’d never support a new contract with MERC, but looked to the state to oversee an eventual closing. “I don’t think pounding the gavel every week and saying ‘they have to go’ is the way to go,” she said.

Walter Ash, Belfast’s new mayor, lacks Twomey’s media profile but was in the right place at the right time when the Press Herald covered the announcement that a health services company called Athenahealth will take over a former MBNA building in town, bringing 100 jobs initially and a projected 600. The reporter took note that Ash repairs cars at his East Side Garage but was wearing a suit for the occasion. “It is going to be a great opportunity for this area,” Ash was quoted as saying. “I’m excited and the community is buzzing.”

Later in the story, the mayor commented about the ups and downs of the last two decades in Belfast, which saw the decline of the city’s sardine and poultry plants. “Twenty years ago, it would not have been uncommon to see a chicken walking down Main Street,” he said.

Ash, like Twomey, is a political veteran. He served nine years on the city council and six in the House of Representatives before losing a bid for a fourth term in 2006.

Reasons for running

Most new municipal leaders don’t get this kind of exposure during their terms in office. But while they may have less experience, they do have equally strong reasons for running. And while most small towns choose their leaders at town meeting, a significant number now go to the polls in November. Interviews with a half dozen of those who’ve just succeeded in competitive elections suggests that there is a variety of reasons for running for municipal office, and some important local issues that prompt volunteers to step forward.

Wayne Cochrane is a recently retired postal employee who also taught at Andover College and worked as an accountant before deciding to run for the Bath City Council. A volunteer with the city recreation department, he thought about how he’d liked to use his time, and “doing my civic duty” came to the forefront. Years earlier he’d been a selectman in Thomaston, and, he said, “I figured I could deal with it one more time.”

Cochrane acknowledges that council service pays little, and doesn’t always earn the appreciation of one’s fellow citizens. “People are a little more confrontational now” than when he was a selectman, he said. Still, “I’ve got a good background for dealing with people,” and he was willing to take the risk.

His very first council meeting presented a dilemma. A leading municipal issue is the city-owned landfill, which the previous council voted to close, after numerous health complaints from the neighborhood. The council placed a bond issue to close the landfill on the ballot, with instructions that a “yes” vote would be seen as support for closure, while “no” meant that the landfill would likely stay open.

On Election Day, the no’s prevailed, which put Cochrane in a bind. Although he was elected to an at-large seat, he sympathized with the landfill opponents and had pledged to do what he could to shut it down. “I guess you could say I was the swing vote,” he said. “If I voted to close it, there would have been a tie.” Instead, Cochrane chose to support opening a new cell and keeping the landfill open, at least for now. “I decided I couldn’t go against the will of the people, since they’d just voted,” he said – although no one expects the issue to go away.

Cochrane said his work at the post office helped him when it came time to campaign. “People get to know you there,” he said. “They may not know your name, but it helps when you go door to door.”

The full treatment

In Augusta, the city council elections had all the trappings of legislative elections this year. William Stokes, who with Cecil Munson unseated an incumbent councilor along with a planning board member for the two seats available, turned out to be the top vote-getter. Stokes said he realized that neither his previous service on the school board, where he was a member for seven years, nor his job as head of the criminal division of the state Attorney General’s Office might be enough to win.

“In a city election, the incumbent councilor and Cecil Munson, who’d run several times before, were better known than I was,” he said. Originally, he’d been a reluctant candidate, who wasn’t sure he had enough time to do the job. Nevertheless, he filed his papers.

The next morning, the local newspaper had a headline, “Four vie for at-large seats,” which was not what Stokes was expecting. “I asked myself what I was getting into, and whether I really wanted to do it,” he said.

Help arrived in the form of Don Roberts, a former councilor and radio personality who volunteered to be Stokes’ campaign manager. “Here was a total stranger telling me he’d guide me through the entire process. It was amazing,” he said.

With Roberts’ help, Stokes raised money, erected signs and went door-to-door for two months. “You have to realize that none of this was at all comfortable for me,” he said. All of his school board campaigns had been uncontested, “and in my job, all the emphasis is on being nonpartisan and non-political,” he said.        

Nonetheless, when people started recognizing him (and his 10-year old son) in door-to-door visits, Stokes found himself getting caught up in the excitement of campaigning. “Once you begin to meet and talk to your potential constituents, you realize what this is all about,” he said.

On election day, he and Munson were the two candidates who spent all days at the polls, and Stokes thinks that was one reason he won. “People appreciate being able to see and talk to you” outside the polling place. “It sends a message that you take representing them seriously.”

Getting Involved

In Belgrade, Daniel Newman, who won a four-way race for an open seat, also thinks that being there on Election Day makes a difference. “I was the only one there all day,” he said. “People say they appreciate being able to meet you before they cast their vote.”

For the most part, politicking is low-key in this northern Kennebec County town of 3,200. Newman looked into the cost of political signs and decided against having them printed. “For $300, I decided I could make my own signs, and we did,” he said.

Nevertheless, preparation is required. Newman has been a volunteer firefighter for 10 years and runs his own fire protection business. When he put his name forward at a caucus that was choosing legislative candidates for the special election brought about by the death of Rep. Abigail Holman, “I realized I needed to do more to get known in town.” That opportunity arrived with the open selectman’s seat.

Newman says he fits comfortably on the five-member board, which has a number of veterans, including former state senator Spike Carey.

“I see it as one more way of getting involved with the town,” he said. He’s looking forward, in particular, to working on the budget. “In the fire department, you’re used to seeing one small piece of the pie,” he said. “It will be nice to get a look at the whole picture.”

Neighborhood Activism
            Karen Klatt recalls the day a neighbor in Brunswick called her to ask what she planned to do about a proposed expansion of a church, which would require a zoning change for a parking lot extending into the existing residential neighborhood.

“I was an abutter, and I’d gotten the same notice, and I’d thrown it away,” she said. “My neighbor said we should at least attend the meetings, so we decided to go.”

It was a preliminary review by the planning department, and she asked what would happen to the proposal. “They said that they would pass it and send it along to the planning board, and they would pass it and send it to the council, and they would pass it too. I was beginning to wonder why we were there.”

Klatt and her neighbor raised some questions and concerns, but they were surprised when the planning board turned down the project. “We weren’t expecting that, but it did suggest something could happen if you got involved.”

Soon, the neighborhood was talking about a proposed industrial park nearby that was being pushed by town officials and economic development agencies as an answer to the pending shutdown of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Again, she got the impression that the proposal wasn’t being scrutinized, and decided to run for the town council, which would ultimately decided on the project. It was a big step for someone whose civic involvement had so far focused on volunteering at the local elementary school.

Klatt faced a real estate agent who was a vocal supporter of the industrial park, and she won decisively. “I guess we know how the neighborhood feels about it,” she said.

Klatt had worked as an accountant, and is now a “stay at home mom” for two sons, ages 10 and 14. She and her husband, a Navy pilot who is now a reservist, had lived all over the country and in Europe, with two stints at BNAS. “We decided that this was the perfect place to raise a family,” she said. “It’s a safe community with a small-town atmosphere,” which she believes is worth defending.

She believes the town may be a bit too development-friendly, at least in terms of the agencies that promote such efforts. She sees them as secretive and lacking in public access and accountability. “They couldn’t even produce minutes of the meetings we asked for,” she said. Klatt intends to use her council seat to demand such accountability on the industrial park plan. “Unless I can see how this will benefit the entire community, I’ll fight it,” she said.

Environmental Awareness

Priscilla Jenkins is another new officeholder who tried a run for the Legislature before seeking a municipal position. She ran against Rep. Patrick Flood in a district comprising Winthrop and Readfield in 2006 before winning a seat on the Winthrop Town Council in November, finishing second among five candidates for two open seats. As a county committee chair, she was originally a “placeholder” candidate in the legislative race, but stayed in when no one else stepped forward. She enjoyed the experience, even though she didn’t win.

Jenkins has made her career in computer management and development, and finds it easy to get to know people and their concerns. As the daughter of a Methodist minister, she said, “I didn’t have a home town.” Her longest residence, before settling in Winthrop in 2000, was 3 1/2 years in college. She became interested in the workings of town government while doing data processing in Plainfield, N.J. She cringes a bit when she hears Winthrop described as a “bedroom community” because it still has a service center economy, even though the mills that once fueled its growth are gone.

Winthrop has had its share of environmental challenges as a result of its industrial past, including a federal Superfund site, and she was intrigued to learn, when she bought her house, that its original 911 address was to be “Old Dump Road.” The name was changed to the more innocuous “Mallard Lane.”

“The town needs to be more environmentally aware,” she said. “Our lakes are one of the finest features of the community, and we need to protect them. They’re one reason people want to live here, not just in summer, but year-round.”

Another issue she and her fellow councilors will be working on are improvements to the public safety facilities. Voters just turned down a second, scaled-down proposal to bring together police, fire and rescue services in one complex  She would like to examine plans to upgrade some of the existing buildings, an alternative discarded earlier. “We need to upgrade, for sure,” she said. “But we need to consider the value of our older buildings and whether they can still be used.”

A Choice for Voters

Kim Cormier stepped forward to run for an open selectman’s seat in Benton after she saw that there was only one candidate in the race. “I didn’t think that was enough. I think voters deserve a choice.” She scrambled a bit to get her nominating petition in on time, but made it. With the retirement of a long-time selectman, Rick Lawrence, from the board, she thought someone with experience was needed. Cormier has served on town boards for 10 years, including the budget committee and board of appeals, and is a Benton native. She holds a BA in history from the University of Maine and works in the sales department at Thorndike Press.

In approaching her new town position, she said, “I don’t like a lot of dissension. It sometimes seems that people do things for personal reasons, and not for the best interest of the town.”

Since she’s been involved in town affairs for some time, she hasn’t found any big surprises at selectmen’s meetings. “I usually know a little bit about what we’re discussing, and I can learn quickly,” she said. Her style, she said, is “to take the pragmatic road. To me, that’s what works best.”

While some municipal seats in November were filled in uncontested elections, most selectmen and council positions in fact do attract more than one candidate – something that often can’t be said of legislative primaries or some school board elections. Voters, as Cormier puts it, do seem to like a choice, and citizen volunteers usually provide one.

Elections are not without their down side, however. “It’s not an easy thing, putting your name forward and knowing that you have to compete in public before all your neighbors,” said William Stokes, the successful at-large council candidate in Augusta. “You have to run the risk of losing, and losing can be a difficult thing to accept.”

On the other hand, he said that winning a race can be more than just a proof of popularity. “It underlines how much of a responsibility this is. Once you’ve faced the voters, you care a little more about how well you can represent them.”